Why don’t athletes report locker room bullying?

David Beckham, England, bullying
David Beckham of England said as a rookie with Manchester United he had to perform a sex act in front of an image of Manchester legend Clayton Blackmore as part of his hazing. (Photo by  Ben Radford /Allsport)

Locker rooms have been a private space for athletes since they were created, but seclusion from coaches, teachers and other authority figures they provide also has opened the door to bantering, teasing and bullying to flourish there.

Black text that reads why this matters
Locker room bullying is more pervasive than thought. Fear of reprisal or not being part of the team often limit athletes reporting bullying behavior.

Chicago clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer sees the locker room as a vulnerable place for young people.

“It’s a time not only that you have this intimacy … and this heightened anxiety over that, but then you have it unsupervised by authority figures,” Mayer said in a recent phone interview. “So then it’s a right situation for inappropriate social behavior like bullying,” Mayer said in a recent phone interview.

Pinnacle High School in Phoenix has combated bullying in various athletic programs. Andrew Hurley, who coaches track and field at the school and serves as defensive coordinator for the football team, credits the school’s football coaching staff for stopping bullying at its source. 

Bullying, as defined by Merriam Webster is abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger and more powerful. The source in sports often is older athletes on the team. 

“We’ve actually done a good job of being more aware that this stuff is going on,” Hurley said. “We talk to our kids now once every couple weeks or so, just reminding them it doesn’t matter what age you are, there’s no difference. There’s no hazing.” 

Hazing is a word often associated with athletics. Hazing is an initiation process involving harassment and bullying. It’s been accepted as a tradition by many athletic programs, but especially in football.

 In 2017, Hamilton High School in Chandler, Arizona, was in the spotlight for a hazing scandal that included allegations that varsity football players took cellphone video of younger players being sexually assaulted. Several players were arrested and the head football coach and athletic director ultimately lost their jobs after an investigation revealed that they were aware of the abuse and failed to report it.

Samuel Lovett of The Independent wrote in a July 2019 article that sports organizations often cast a blind eye to hazing and bullying, so “many of those suffering under this system remain frightened to come forward with their experiences given the repercussions they could face in speaking out against their coaches, teammates, clubs or governing bodies.

“Instead, they’re left to suffer in silence, not yet able or willing to take their story public.”

Former Northern Arizona University football player Jake Veach was never a victim of hazing, but he witnessed it during his final year at Pinnacle High.

“I remember during my senior year of high school, hazing was the up-and-coming subject,” Veach said in a phone interview. “I remember how this one kid apparently sent all of our plays, like our freshman playbook, to the opposing team. And I remember apparently before practice one day, the team threw him in the shower and got him soaking wet before practice.”

In his piece, Lovett described instances of locker room bullying all around the world, even in professional locker rooms. For instance, the soccer club Manchester United became notorious for its initiations of new players.

Star David Beckham revealed to Metro in 2013 that his teammates made him perform a sex act while while staring at a photo of team legend Clayton Blackmore.

“Everyone had an initiation that you had to go through on the youth team and that was one of the most uncomfortable ones,” Beckham told Metro. “The fact that I had to look at Clayton Blackmore’s calendar and do certain things, while looking at Clayton Blackmore… I mean it was embarrassing to talk about!”

Lovett said that, “Regardless of whether it was perceived as banter or bullying, numerous ex-United players have gone on record stating they dreaded entering the dressing room as a youngster.”

There is a fine line that separates what might be described as an initiation and hazing or bullying.

“I think anytime that hazing goes beyond a right of initiation to abusive behavior toward that individual, then it’s wrong,” Mayer said.. “Hazing should be a word that is eliminated from sports. I have no problem with initiation, but hazing has become a negative and abusive term by definition.” 

The growth of social media has fueled bullying by offering multiple platforms for it to take place.

This is something that coaches can’t necessarily supervise or stop. According to a 2015 report published in JAMA Pediatrics that looked across 36 different studies of mostly adolescents between ages 12 and 18, the median prevalence of reported cyberbullying was 23.0%.

“When I was in high school, it was really just physical bullying and emotional,” Hurley said. “But now with the whole cyber bullying and all of that, which really wasn’t around when I was in high school, I think it’s just changed tremendously.”

Although social media has opened this gateway for cyber bullying, it’s opened the eyes of authoritative members for what really goes on in social-media platforms.

“Social media has been one of the venues which has made us aware and spread the news of the world of people like me in this area and made us more aware that bullying is a problem in our society,” Mayer said. “On the other hand, social media is a very powerful and elusive way in which kids bully and tease each other.”

Whether bullying is happening on social media or in a locker room, Meyer said it has to be brought to light. He suggests three ways for victims to tackle bullying.

He said victims can ignore the bullying or refuse to react to it. And he said the third option is where most young people fall short — which is to tell someone in authority.

“That is really important,” Mayer said. “You need to let the coaches, teachers, monitors —  whoever it is in charge — know what’s going on, and I’ve seen better and better results with this.”

If you are a victim or know victims of bullying who are struggling to seek help, the Stop Bullying Now Hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for calls within the U.S. at 1-800-273-8255. 

Stephanie Bates is a senior sports journalism major at Arizona State University